Last year marked a turning point for Turkey, or at least for its reputation among political commentators in the West. For decades it had been America’s darling: a secular, democratic Muslim country that was both a member of NATO and—mirabile dictu—an ally of Israel, with which it had signed a defense pact in 1996 and enjoyed close military and commercial ties. Tensions had occasionally flared up over Cyprus, Iraq and the Kurdish and Armenian issues, and Ankara’s courting of Russia, Syria and other Western bugbears had been a growing source of disagreement. But never, till this past May, had Turkey’s fundamental orientation come into question. Then, in the span of a few weeks, Turkey became a black sheep.
The falling-out began on May 31, when Israeli forces intercepted a flotilla, which had been partially organized by a Turkish NGO, that was trying to run the blockade of Gaza. During the ensuing struggle, eight Turks and one Turkish-American aboard the lead ship, the Mavi Marmara, were killed, while seven Israeli commandos and dozens of other activists were wounded, prompting an international crisis and a sharp deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations. It soon came out that the NGO and Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym, AKP) shared many of the same supporters—wealthy religious businessmen—and that the Mavi Marmara and two other ships in the flotilla had been purchased from a company operated by the municipality of Istanbul, which is run by AKP. Then, on June 9, Turkey broke ranks with Europe and the United States to vote against sanctioning Iran. Just three weeks earlier, Ankara had helped broker a deal with Tehran whereby the latter would surrender some of its low-enriched uranium in return for nuclear fuel rods, and the Turkish government, loath to antagonize a neighbor, wanted to give that deal a chance.
Turkey’s row with Israel and perceived coddling of Iran led many pundits in the United States and Europe to wonder whether Ankara was “turning its back on the West”—as an October cover of The Economist had it—and if so, who was to blame. Washington and Brussels engaged in a round of mutual recriminations on this point. Defense Secretary Robert Gates blamed the EU for shunning Turkey, and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso retorted that, no, the United States spoiled relations by invading Iraq. Others insisted the West had nothing to do with it: they attributed Turkey’s eastward turn to a veritable Islamist revolution, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the head of AKP and Turkey’s prime minister. “Gone, and gone permanently, is secular Turkey,” wrote Michael Rubin in Commentary last summer. It has been replaced by an “Islamic Republic” that is our “enemy.” Lest it pass American weaponry and intelligence along to “Hamas, Sudan, or Iran,” he suggested, Turkey should be kicked out of NATO. He equivocated on this last point, but he wasn’t kidding.
The underlying problem with these explanations—that Turkey’s reorientation is simply the product of resentment or a revolutionary turn toward Islamism—is that they are superficial and take too short a view. Each contains a grain of truth: the former, that Turks resent being treated shabbily, as benighted supplicants at the altar of Brussels, and are angry about the destabilization of Iraq; the latter, that Erdogan is a pious Muslim and a blowhard who sympathizes—publicly and sometimes histrionically—with the plight of the Palestinians and likes to throw his weight around. But to fixate on a few recent incidents and ascribe outsize importance to them is to imply too great and too sudden a change, and to cast the situation in too dire a light. Turkey’s transformation has far deeper roots, and a far broader basis, than either of these pat explanations acknowledges, and it is not intrinsically threatening to the West.